Guest blogger, Rebecca Watters, writes about her experience in the summer of 2010 on a TMU-sposored project that sent The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative to research the impacts of climate change on wolverine and pika populations in Mongolia.

On the basis of a few rumors and a single pelt that I saw in Mongolia in 2009, my fellow wolverine biologists in the US encouraged me to put together what some people might have considered an insane proposal: to try to find one of the world’s most elusive animals, in one of the world’s most rugged countries, and to begin a long-term monitoring program for climate change effects. I’d assured everyone that I could carry this off, and not only find wolverines, but do it in a way that set the stage for future cooperation among American and Mongolian biologists, and that also included local herders and hunters for whom conservation projects have frequently meant restrictions and exclusion. Having spent two years in Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer, I wanted to do things differently, in a way that appreciated the strengths of Mongolian environmental knowledge and ethics, and that, at the same time, gained vital scientific information to contribute to conservation.

I was confident on all counts except one: actually finding the wolverines. This is a creature that covers, on average, 2.5 miles an hour, 24 hours a day, every day of its life. They have massive territories and are thinly distributed across the most inaccessible parts of the landscape. They are notoriously difficult to track even when they are carrying radio collars. In my time in Mongolia, I’d spent days in the company of hunters and herders whose knowledge of the wildlife was close to miraculous; they could find things with their bare eyes that would have taken me years and a lot of technology to uncover. But could they find a wolverine?

In late June of 2010, we set out on the first of our field expeditions, to the Altai of far western Mongolia. Flying blind, with nothing but a packet of picture cards featuring Mongolia’s charismatic mega-fauna, we tracked down hunters, herders, and those reputed to know the landscape. Slowly, a picture began to emerge; yes, wolverines were here, but very rare. No, they didn’t depredate on livestock, and yes, their ferocity was legendary and, if you could get over the fact that they smelled bad, they were admirably courageous. Yes, people shot them if they had an opportunity, but no one hunted them deliberately; the pelts were worth very little. No, it was impossible to find one if you set out to look for it, but I was welcome to keep trying if I thought I could do it.

On July 4th, approaching Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, we pulled over beside a stream where a man was sitting with a young boy. Exhausted from ten days on the road, I handed him a picture of a wolverine and asked him if he happened to have seen such an animal lately. He looked at it and said, “Yeah, two days ago, up in the pasture above my ger. It ran right across in front of me. I would have shot it but I didn’t have my gun.”

Tiredness evaporated as we followed him back to his ger and I geared up to climb up into the meadows high above to check the snowfields for tracks. This was the test; if I could find evidence of a wolverine up there, then I’d not only found my animal, I’d demonstrated that local knowledge was an incredibly valuable asset and that the herders and hunters living with the wildlife were potentially our greatest allies in a research project. I flew up the slope, climbed avalanche chutes to get a better look at the snow fields, and scoured the meadow, but found nothing. Disappointed, I went back down and camped for the night in the herder’s yard. My traveling companions were all ill and when I woke before dawn the next morning, I knew I’d be on my own again for another long climb, but I was determined to go back and look again. The herder had described the animal, its tracks, and its behavior too accurately for it to have been anything other than a wolverine.

The sun had just come up when I came into the meadow again and headed for the snowfields. Even from a distance, I could see something that hadn’t been there the night before, and I knew on some subconscious level, because I’d seen similar patterns across the snow back in Wyoming and Montana, what it was even before my mind had fully processed what I was seeing. There, across the snow, were fresh wolverine tracks, barely ten minutes old.

In the ensuing excitement, as I explained our project in more detail and the herder came to understand more clearly why we were interested in live wolverines, he offered to help, hopping into the van and directing us to families he thought had pelts, making suggestions about how to structure a future field study based on his knowledge of local conditions, and offering to work for the project if and when we returned to do more work. The enthusiasm was evident, and contagious, and it was the start of an unexpectedly successful summer. Although nothing matched the heart-stopping discovery of fresh tracks, we gathered an extraordinary amount of information through interviews in three of Mongolia’s mountainous regions – far more data than expected. We worked with an amazing Mongolian research assistant and began building ties with the National Academy and the National University, as well as those vital connections on the ground, in the communities. The generosity and openness of our hosts was humbling. This is the first step on a project that, although currently focused primarily on wolverines, will hopefully expand to encompass assessment and monitoring for other climate sensitive montane species in Mongolia. This summer’s work on wolverines and the associated work on pikas already represents a substantial step forward in filling knowledge gaps on unstudied species, and beyond the science, we forged meaningful ties in remote communities with people whose knowledge of their environment fills me with awe. This was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.

Rebecca Watters
The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative
January 20, 2011

For more information on The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, please visit their website.